The Wild Swan

Recorded in Nashville and rich in variety, the third album from Foy Vance isn't just his finest yet, it bears all the markings of a contemporary classic

Time is the true judge of music’s worth, of the emotional heft it imparts to more than a single generation. So, neck firmly on the old block, I’d hazard now that The Wild Swan, Foy Vance’s third album and first since 2013's Joy of Nothing, will eventually cement its place as as one of the best pop recordings to emerge from this island in decades.

In the meantime, there’s instant gratification to be had in these dozen songwriting gems, which range from intimate acoustic confessionals to more anthemic fare – in short, what we’ve come to expect from Vance. Yet The Wild Swan, with Vance’s nuanced arrangements adding lustre to his passionate delivery, stands out by some distance as his finest offering to date.

Vance spits fire on the swampy, Tom Waits-esque rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Noam Chomsky is a Soft Revolution’, a musical riot forged on gruff vocal, honking brass and 1950s-style guitar twang. The delightfully sunny ‘Upbeat Feelgood’--a summertime anthem for the ages--evokes vintage Van Morrison, with its championing of sweet wine, and sweeter love-making under the stars.

The Bangor singer-songwriter has drunk deeply at the wells of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and, naturally enough, Van the Man and it’s no coincidence that The Wild Swan was recorded between Nashville and County Down. Yet Vance is the real deal – indebted to those who have gone before, to be sure, but still very much his own man.

He deals a little country-blues on the gentle ‘Co Co’, where Colm McClean on electric guitar and Blake Mills on slide guitar weave subtle charms. He raises the stakes with confident swagger on ‘Casanova’, a terrific slice of rock'n'roll-cum-Cajun Zydeco bravura. On slower numbers like ‘Bangor Town’ - a haunting, passionate ode to his home town - and the gently voiced ‘Burden’, Vance seduces with balladic finesse.

There are more than a few radio-friendly tracks here, like the string-buoyed ‘She Burns’, the anthemic ‘Be like You Belong’, and the powerful Marc Bolan/David Bowie tribute ‘Ziggy Looked Me in the Eye’. Yet like all classic albums, The Wild Swan merits uninterrupted play, as a spirit runs through each track, gathering momentum along the way and leaving the impression that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The arrangements are rich in instrumentation, with the hues of accordion, low whistle, interweaving guitar parts, chimes, pump organ, mellotron, piano, fiddle and judiciously placed three-part vocal harmonies all leaving subtle yet indelible imprints.

The rousing ‘Fire It Up’ with its rat-a-tat martial drums and infectious acoustic strum reaches fever pitch before Darragh Murphy’s lilting uilleann pipe coda bleeds into the haunting poetry of The Wild Swans on the Lake – perhaps the most touching lyric that Vance has yet penned and a tune destined to become a traditional standard.

The Wild Swan is clearly the fruit of much labour and much love – the currency of all great songwriters. Vance has honed his craft for ten years or more, but perhaps now, with this joyous recording, he’ll gain the wider recognition his talents deserve.

The Wild Swan is out now on Ed Sheeran's Gingerbread Man Records. Listen now or purchase via www.foyvance.com. Foy performs at Glastonbury Festival this Friday, June 24, before returning to Northern Ireland for two shows at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on December 5 (with Dana Masters) and 10 (with Ryan McMullan) To book tickets visit www.ulsterhall.co.uk.